De-Escalation Training Using Science, Not Speculation

By pairing what we know about how the brain functions—and subsequently, how individuals can purposefully and intentionally push the brain into "Executive State"—with what we know about tailoring our communication to the person with whom we're speaking, trainers can take De-Escalation training to an entirely new (and better) level.

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"Aaaaaahhh liiiiittle puuuulll," says a gravelly and almost hypnotic voice.

"Smoke up. Push. Gooooooooooo. Diamond Stinger," the voice—something between baritone and tenor—is now just slightly more urgent.

Four more voices reply in rapid-fire, single-syllable, almost-unintelligible acknowledgement.

This is not gibberish. This is a language of exacting precision, spoken fluently by Commander Brian Kesselring and other membersof the United States Navy Flight Demonstration team in a video posted to social media showing the Blue Angels pilots "chair flying" a planned "show" above NAS Pensacola in March 2021.

During this pre-flight operation, each of the team's pilots sits around a conference room table, eyes closed, hands moving imaginary flight controls and heads turning to look at visualized wingtips of airplanes just inches from their own, as Commander Kesselring makes his rehearsed radio calls.

This type of mental preparation is about as hardcore as any visualization exercise can be—and it's a pretty good model for the type and intensity of mental preparation that could benefit police officers heading to calls that may be rapidly unfolding, high-stress situations with unknown persons and unpredictable outcomes.

Kerry Mensior—a retired law enforcement veteran with three decades on the job and now executive director of the International De-Escalation Association (IDEA)—says it can be particularly helpful when incorporated into De-Escalation training.

Rethinking De-Escalation

Law enforcement training around De-Escalation has thus far been built on two pillars. The first is tactics—time, distance, and shielding. The second is the application of logic to solve an emotional issue.

Each pillar has obvious merit. Time, distance, and shielding are important factors in successfully dealing with combative, non-compliant suspects. Applying clear, linear thinking to an emotionally charged situation is a laudable.

However, both are—at times—not entirely effective.

Mensior suggests adding to the mix a critical ingredient of brain science.  

"If you don't understand how your brain is working and you don't understand how the other person's brain is working, then you're not going to have the best outcome possible," Mensior explains. "The best example of that is the classic video of an officer yelling at a suspect, 'Drop the knife!' fifteen times. That officer does not know how their brain works."

Fine-Tuning the Brain

Mensior suggests preventing falling into that tactic—if yelling something repeatedly is even to be called a tactic—can be accomplished by mentally rehearsing alternatives prior to even arriving to the location.

Mensior explains, "We all know Gordon Graham: 'What's predictable is preventable.' What's predictable is you're going to be in a critical incident—you have to have that mindset. When I was a young officer I thought about what calls I'd be involved in. I'm going be involved in a foot pursuit. I'm going to be involved in a cover request. I'm going to be involved in an OIS. You can lay out the top five or six things you going to be involved in on a piece of paper."

Mensior suggests that once you've visualized yourself in a situation, think about what you'll say and do. Visualize the scene and the surroundings. Contemplate the possible participants.

Consider, for example, this hypothetical. A 911 caller reports a domestic dispute, indicating also the presence of a potentially suicidal subject at the scene. While en route, officers learn from a quick scan of the MDT that residence has had previous visits from patrol. In fact, a report from a recent call shows a young man had assaulted his mother.

Now, you certainly don't know for certain what you're going to have at hand when you get there, but you have a few things to ponder. If you're in a two officer vehicle, a discussion about the possibilities and some pre-planning is a worthwhile activity.

Mensior says that this pre-event type of visualization enables a person to remain in "Executive State" (read more about that here), using the thinking, logical, reasoning part of the brain even if things go wildly off the rails.

"You can keep it from going sideways," Mensior says, "and if it does go sideways, you're going to be handling it so much better. And here's just another little tidbit. How you deal with stuff after everything's over is going to be so much better because you'll have performed better. You'll have been in a better state of mind—you'll be more satisfied with your performance—which means you won't be second guessing yourself. The aftermath is so much better because your performance is better."

Utilizing Simple Strategies

In order to get into—and stay within—the "Executive State" Mensior suggests some pretty simple activities to try.

Utilize Affirmations: "During High-Risk Stop training, I'd teach the cover officer to just do nothing else than verbally validate the contact officer. Any time there was a pause in them shouting instructions to the suspects, I would have them tell [their partner], 'Dude, you're doing a great job. Slow down just a little bit. You're doing everything perfect.' Just throw out two or three verbal validations so they hear your voice."

Just Whistle: "Try just whistling a happy tune," Mensior says. "You can't whistle a happy tune and be in danger—your mind won't let you do both. By using a happy song, you trick your brain into thinking you’re safe and you’ll go into Executive State."

Have Gratitude: "Gratitude is sometimes a little tough to do, but gratitude keeps you in Executive State.  Simply say, “Cool! I get to exercise my patience muscles!’," Mensior says.

Mensior says these activities allow the limbic system to function properly, facilitating memory retrieval and information processing "so you stay clear thinking" and "not just losing your mind and vapor locking."

Returning to the B.A.N.K.

Finally, Mensior presents the reminder that officers would benefit from the incorporation of B.A.N.K. Code (read more about that here) into police training.

"We train a lot on pre-attack indicators," Mensior says. "What we also have to be trained on is, 'Who are we dealing with? How do we pick up on that?'"

In a nutshell, B.A.N.K. is a set of four basic personality types into which most people align. Those traits are Blueprint, Action, Nurturing, and Knowledge. Once a person's personality trait in the B.A.N.K. model is identified, the officer(s) can adjust their own language selection to match the values of the person with whom they're speaking.

Applying the Science

There is no single tactic that will work 100% of the time to de-escalate a potentially deadly confrontation, but some of the tools discussed here can certainly help increase the probability of successfully defusing a wide variety of scenarios.

By pairing what we know about how the brain functions—and subsequently, how individuals can purposefully and intentionally push the brain into "Executive State"—with what we know about tailoring our communication to the person with whom we're speaking, trainers can take De-Escalation training to an entirely new (and better) level.

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